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Saturday, April 2, 2016

How my historical fiction lost its fiction or And to think I met them on Research Street

For the past few months I have been researching a little known African American designer. She designed for many but was known only to that circle. She was, in her own words, a "design snob." But she was, oh, so much more. Here's my story of the research that allowed me into her social circle.

I met her in an airport last fall. I was in the airport, she wasn't. She died decades ago, but as I was 'surfing the net' I came upon two sentences about her. A 'did you know' kind of post. I was blown away, for no, I didn't know and I thought the circumstances were such that I should.

Born in 1898, the great-granddaughter of a slave and a plantation owner, the granddaughter of a slave and a free man of color, she entered the world in a small, rural town in the Jim Crow South. Through talent, determination, and a desire to reach a goal, she refused to let the circumstances of her birth keep her down. She didn't preach; she didn't march, she didn't give up. She allowed a dream to be born in her heart and in her own personal way, she overcame all obstacles and achieved her dream.

When I began my research, I was writing an historical fiction. Soon it became clear to me that her story, her true, unvarnished story had to be told. It was, at that point told only in bits and pieces and often with the bits inaccurate and  the pieces changing with each retelling. I began my research to clarify things for myself and found myself getting to know a strong woman from a family of strong women.

As I researched, I gave up on the historical fiction for two reasons. First, as I said, her story in itself needs to be told. At times it reads rather like a fairy tale, and at all times is an inspiration. Secondly, I am a white woman, raised in the South. Try as I might I could not convince myself that I could do her justice in fiction. I could not get in her head and speak in her voice. I wanted her to speak for herself. And so she does.

The biography is nearing completion. Along the way I have learned to marvel at what she overcame, and at the people she met. This woman who under normal circumstance would not be welcomed in their homes, became a darling to the Duponts, Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Lodges, Posts, Auchinclosses, the Bouviers,..well you get my drift.

As I researched her life, I found beautiful gowns, and their owners. I have been in touch with some fascinating people. A concert pianist now living in Belgium, an academic in Ohio, a lovely socialite who invited me to her home, the daughter of a novelist whose works became the story for several John Wayne movies, including the unforgettable, Shane, and a lady who sounds just like my mother-in-law on the phone.

I've tramped through graveyards, seen homes falling down, visited with ladies who still speak of the members of her family with their family nicknames as if they are just around the corner, and driven through beautiful rolling hills only to find an improvised town at the end of the road.

Now, I think, I can write an historical fiction, not with her as the main character, but with her as the inspiration for a historical era, but first I must help her tell her story.

I've had fun with this research, even when I was pulling my hair out trying to find these beautiful brides, debutantes, and socialites from the 1950's and 60's. That's the beauty of research, you never know where the path will take you or who you will meet along the way. I love it.


  1. How inspiring! Maybe I will start my historical novel someday soon!

    1. Go for it. It's great fun. Good luck. Let me know if I can help.

  2. That's a fascinating research journey. Do you care to mention who your subject is? Or can you share more about the research you've done? I'm curious in particular if you've been able to access any of her own writings, if such exist (diaries, memoirs, etc).

    1. Teramis, soon full disclosure. I promise to let you know. Thanks for your comment. She had no writings that I, or her family, could find. Years without documentation other than her artistic creations.

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